Sweep Up Street Fairs, Please!

One good thing has come from the $4.5 billion of taxpayer money spent to construct the three stations that will comprise the Second Avenue Subway: over the near-decade of destroying small businesses and jobs, and undermining the health of residents, this project that was first (and better) developed in 1929 put an end to the Second Avenue Street Fairs.

I had made an annual ritual of slamming my windows to block carcinogens from burning meat snacks while I hoped to mute the cacophony of screaming drum-beaters who could not find a tune. However, the MTA’s claim that it will finally be opening those subway stations at 72nd, 86th and 96th Streets means that the fairs will be coming back. Hello tube socks and other merchandise that discount stores have rejected! Multiple welcomes to  vendors of rugs and schmattas who appear at every street fair one tries unsuccessfully to avoid! With you all come increased air pollution from busses and cars stalled in detours. Gone will be hours of human life lost while idling in lung-killing traffic. However, we will again finally see what our police officers look like because they will be present making overtime protecting us at these generic events.

Nonetheless, there could be reason for the audacity of hope. Writing in Politico, Laura Nahmias reports that the de Blasio administration plans to make New York City’s ubiquitous street fairs less corporate. Here is her story:

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration is proposing changes to the city’s street fairs intended to end the corporate flavor of many of the festivals, addressing a long-standing complaint from civic groups and elected officials that the fairs are a costly headache and do little to benefit the communities where they’re held.

Under proposed rules scheduled for a public hearing on October 13, at least fifty percent of vendors participating in a street fair would have to be businesses with locations inside the same community board where the event is being held. That proposal marks a major change that could remake the character of the roughly 200 street fairs the city currently allows each year.

The proposed changes, which must undergo a period of public comment before being approved and which would go into effect in 2017, were met with delight by Manhattan City Councilman Dan Garodnick, who has been pressing for reforms to the city’s street fair policies for years.

“My complaint is that they are generic and that they are too frequent with too little community benefit,” Garodnick said.

“A street fair should be a small, friendly community event, which people in the neighborhood identify with and enjoy. Many of them have just become a carbon copy of one another,” he said.

Currently, Garodnick said, the fairs “sell sausages and socks and cell phone cases and pashminas on every block and there’s not a hint of local flavor, other than perhaps the sponsoring organization which they are required to have.”

Since 2004, the city has had a moratorium on granting permits for any new street fairs, after the New York Police Department complained about the excessive burden the fairs placed on its resources. The fairs and festivals, most of which are concentrated in just three community board districts in Manhattan (in the areas around the West Village, Chinatown, Lower East Side, Greenwich Village, Midtown, Times Square, the Flatiron and parts of the Upper West Side), required officers to be diverted from their daily duties and drove up NYPD overtime costs.

New York City earned $1.6 million in vendor fees from more than 300 street fairs in 2010, but the events cost $4 million in overtime pay for the police officers staffing them, the Daily News reported that year.

Meanwhile, outer borough elected officials said their communities were left out of the capped street fair market, putting the burgeoning local businesses of the neighborhoods beyond Manhattan at a disadvantage. And last year, the de Blasio administration began eyeing the possibility of changing the regulations to enable outer boroughs to host more of these events. The administration sent surveys to local businesses and found significant interest in outer borough street fairs.

Under the proposed regulations, there would be geographic distribution of street fairs — no more than 200 street fairs could be held citywide each year, and no more than 100 of them could be located in Manhattan. Each community board would be limited to 20 street fairs annually.

The proposals are “a step in the right direction,” said Jonathan Bowles of the Center for an Urban Future, which in 2006 published a report calling for the city to “rethink” its “bland and generic” street fairs.

“One of the big problems with street fairs was that so many of the vendors weren’t even from New York City,” Bowles told POLITICO New York in an interview. “The fairs week in and week out were dominated by the same few vendors, which is one of the reasons why they were boring and generic.”

Bowles said the city ought to consider opening vendor opportunities at fairs to local and independent businesses from outside of the community boards.

“We’ve criticized street fairs in the past, but not on principle. These could be so amazing for New York City,” he said. In the ten years since the Center for an Urban Future first published its report, many new and interesting street fairs and festivals have popped up, particularly in the outer boroughs, Bowles said.

“We’ve seen, since we started writing about this issue, how New York City has benefited from all these incredible markets, like Smorgasburg, the Brooklyn Flea, the Union Square holiday market.

“New York City has so many independent and entrepreneurial businesses, but so few of them have been represented in street fairs that it’s been a missed opportunity,” he said.

But some of the city’s largest street fair operators said they plan to fight the proposed rule. Todd Berman, the head of Clearview Festival Partners, which is one of the city’s largest street fair and festival operators, applauded the idea to make street fairs more inclusive, but called the new proposed regulations “draconian.”

“It is not realistic or achievable to reach the fifty percent requirement that they’re proposing and have the ability to generate a profit off of the event,” Berman said. “This regulation of fifty percent, it’s a death sentence to street festivals,” he said.

Berman, who operates many festivals outside of Manhattan, said the 100 festival cap on all outer-borough festivals was insensitive.

“I think this mayor has run on a platform of this being one city, but the boroughs are clearly being given the short end of the stick,” he said.

Thus ends Nahmias’ story. I would like to see all fairs banished from Manhattan, or at least confined to one area way downtown, or even in midtown where those who like them can find them with confidence. Please leave a comment by clicking on the lines below.

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Let There be Light Rail

Proposed Connector Route

Courtesy of Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector via New York Daily News.

Kudos to Mayor Bill de Blasio for proposing the Brooklyn Queens Connector, a light rail that will improve transportation along 16 miles of the East River waterfront. It’s a New York City-only undertaking (without the complications of state, federal or Metropolitan Transportation Authority involvement). Tax revenues from increased property values are expected to cover its $2.5 billion cost. Contrast that with the $4.5 billion, two-mile Phase 1 of the Second Avenue Subway, which will go from 96th Street to 63rd Street and Lexington Avenue. This required boring through rock, mining out tunnels and designing and building station stations with elevators and escalators. Brooklyn Queens Connector rails will be embedded in existing streets. Groundbreaking is tentatively scheduled for 2019-2020. If the Second Avenue Subway (a plan conceived in the 1920s) is extended north and south, one hopes future phases will be light rail and not the costly, wasteful, destructive construction that we have seen on the East Side for years. When the Second Avenue subway opens in December, 2016 (if it does) the public will see how little it gets for its money – two rails, not four as in the Lexington Avenue line, and new stops only at 96th, 86th and 72nd Streets – none in the 14 blocks between 86th and 72nd Streets. Certainly, there are concerns about de Blasio’s proposal and hopefully the review process will improve it further. The light rail was plan is based on a report commissioned by a group called Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector, who can serve as a model for what non-profits could achieve.

What Goes Around Comes Back

On Thursday a contractor for the MTA made a boo boo and drilled into a subway tunnel at the 21st Street Station in Long Island City. Its giant drill bit scraped an occupied F-line subway car. The contractor, Griffin Dewatering New England, apparently did not follow instructions. Two years ago an MTA contractor blew life-threatening debris into East 72nd Street in Manhattan. In both incidents, people were scared witless, but no one was physically injured. However, over the past year passengers on another MTA operation, Metro-North Railroad, have died. The National Transportation Safety Board delivered a scathing condemnation of Metro-North and its regulator this Tuesday. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) called the Federal Railroad Administration “essentially a lawless agency, a rogue agency.” * This came after the NTSB investigated five accidents resulting in six fatalities, more than 100 injuries, and $28 million in damages in the past eleven months. The report found that Metro-North had sacrificed scheduled maintenance and safety to keep the trains running on time. Bad management and oversight of both Metro-North and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority at the highest levels is indicated and it adds to the irony of another story that appeared next to the NTSB story in print editions of the N.Y. Times: Jay Walder, chairman of the MTA from 2009 to October, 2011 is the new head of Alta Bicycle Share that operates the Citi Bike program. In July, 2011 the board of the MTA allowed Walder to break his six-year contract, which should have run until the end of 2015. Thus he was able to seize the opportunity to run the MTR Corporation that operates rail services in China. When Walder ran out on the MTA, instead of publicly chiding Walder for breaking his contract with the public, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former mayor Michael Bloomberg offered nothing but praise. The MTA board sent him off with a party. Only Gene Russianoff, head of the Straphangers Campaign, said that Walder’s unexpected departure would harm the MTA. “There’s always a learning curve for new management, and this learning curve will occur during the period when they’re funding their incredibly important rebuilding program,” he said. “I don’t think it’s so hot.” As it turns out, Walder’s scarper wasn’t a good career move. This year in Hong Kong, MTR announced it would not renew his contract in a decision that was “mutual.” So if the MTA and government officials had required Walder to live up to his commitments he would still be working for the people of the region. Whether Metro-North and the MTA would have performed better and spared lives and revenue with him at the helm can never be known. All that’s known is that that the man who once oversaw subway, busses and trains in the New York metropolitan region is now running a 1000-bike program he hopes to expand to all five boroughs. He will relocate Alta from Portland, Oregon to New York and will bring 6,000 more bikes to New York City. Cyclists have the kind of clout that riders of public transit riders. This time Walder needs to succeed big. Do you think he run Citi Bike longer than the few years he gave the MTA? Longer than the few he was with MTR? Will the de Blasio administration demand more from him than the MTA did? Do you expect him to do a good job? Are his skills transferable? Please comment below.

  • CORRECTION The original post 10/31/14 erroneously reported that Sen. Blumenthal’s quote referred to Metro-North. He was actually referring to the Federal Railroad Administration. Attribution is correct in the linked N.Y. Times story.

Ferries Could Save Tax Payers from the Second Avenue Subway

A decade ago, the Metropolitan Transit Authority held public meetings at the old Hunter College School of Social Work to prepare East Side residents for the construction of the Second Avenue Subway, and for the destruction and damage to homes and businesses. Mysore Nagaraja, then president of MTA Capital Construction Company, nearly wept as he described the plight of those of us living east of Third Avenue in the 70s who had to walk 20 or 30 minutes to reach the subway. That was why, he told us, construction of the Second Avenue was so important and inconvenience was to be darned. He was so aggrieved about our situation and so agonized over those who live around York Avenue and 77th Street, that he advocated construction of multiple entrances on the north, south, east and west sides of every station so that after years of suffering we would not have to cross one more avenue, or tarry at one more traffic light, before we could descend to a train each day.

As it turns out, residents of the far East 70s or 80s will continue to be under-served by train service, even if the Second Avenue Subway is ever completed. There is no stop between the 86th Street and 72nd Street stations. Michael Horodniceanu, Nagaraja’s successor, told me during neighborhood tour of the underground construction this is intended to speed travel on the line. I had suspected that plans to construct a station in the high 70s were dropped because a developer pal of former MTA chairman Peter Kalikow was building a new high-rise on the spot, but clearly I was wrong.

Although Second Avenue Stubway, when it opens, will not shave much time from the commute of those living on East 79th Street and First Avenue or York, a more efficient and cost-effective service for them and everyone else is on the way.

The East River, the greatest transit artery in New York City, is one that few travel today, but the New York City Economic Development Corp. recently proposed five new ferry routes that would exploit its possibilities. Such service would connect waterfront neighborhoods in Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Bronx to Manhattan and to each other. It would also improve transit from midtown to the Lower East Side and Wall Street.

Current ferry service on the East River has proven to be a success. It served 1.2 million total riders last year, some 3,200 riders daily. Fare is $4.00 each way, and like the rest of public transit, it is subsidized. The city pays $2.22 or 55 percent, for each one-way trip, compared to 62 cents, or 35 percent, for the subway, which because of the varying fare structures averages $1.73 per trip. Increased use of ferries would make the water system more cost-effective.

Currently there is a pier at 34th Street on Manhattan’s East Side and shuttered one near Gracie Mansion at East 90th Street. An additional one in the mid-70s has been on the drawing board. Happily, construction of ferries would also cost taxpayers far less than the subway. A NYCETD report notes that the extension of the 7 train cost $1.6 billion per mile served, compared to the cost of construction of infrastructure serving the East River Ferry at $8 million per mile served. Unlike busses, ferries don’t travel on congested roads and bridges. Based on what figures I can glean from MTA reports and a helpful 2010 post on the 2nd Ave. Sagas blog, I calculate that construction of the Second Avenue subway ballooned to a cost of  $2.75 billion per mile.

Phase 1 of the Second Avenue Subway will end at Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street and is supposed to be operational by December, 2016 after much delay. Increased ferry routes, and the relatively new Select Busses on First and Second Avenue that have improved surface transit, should mean that other Manhattan neighborhoods will not be needlessly and pointlessly blighted at enormous cost to taxpayers.